Black Friday

Online poker has exploded in popularity over the past decade or so but it has also had its fair share of setbacks. When George W. Bush sneakily signed the UIGEA (Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act) last minute into law in 2006 he sent a strong message to US-friendly online poker sites to stop offering online poker to US citizens.

Some sites like Party Poker and Pacific Poker took this message seriously and immediately left the American market whilst other sites like PokerStars, Full Tilt Poker and Ultimate Bet/Absolute Poker had a different interpretation of the UIGEA and remained open to US-players. Post-UIGEA although several of the major online poker sites that were still accepting US players left, online poker continued to flourish and grow in the US, until one of the biggest events surfaced in what is now known as “Black Friday” in the online poker world.

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On April 15, 2011, a totally unexpected turn of events happened, when PokerStars, Ultimate Bet and Full Tilt Poker, the three highest trafficked online poker sites, were shut down by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). American players had been blocked from accessing and playing in real money poker games and when going to their websites instead of seeing the normal websites, they had been replaced with the DOJ splash page, since the DOJ had gained control of the .com’s that were hosting these poker sites.

As a result of the indictments, the CEOs of these online poker companies had been charged with several serious offenses including bank fraud, money laundering, conspiracy to operate an illegal internet gambling business, as well as processing electronic financial transactions in violation of the UIGEA bill that was passed.

Raymond Bitar and Nelson Burtnick of Full Tilt Poker; Scott Tom and Brent Beckley of Absolute Poker;  Isai Scheinberg and Paul Tate of PokerStars; and Bradley Franzen, Chad Elie, John Campos, and Ryan Lang, who were identified as people who ran payment processors for poker rooms accepting US players, were all indicted as part of the Black Friday investigations. Some were sentenced to jail for the alleged federal offenses while others remain on the run from the US government.

Unlike Full Tilt Poker and PokerStars, which immediately blocked real money play for their US player base, Ultimate Bet’s US players were still able to play in real money games on the site for months following Black Friday. During this time they were unable to process cash outs or transfer funds, but were still able to play on the network. Although non-US players were able to withdraw up to $250 once per week.

In the weeks following the online poker indictments, the U.S. DOJ allowed the online poker sites to regain control of their websites, as well as begin to payback US players that had their funds stuck on these sites.

PokerStars immediately began to start repaying US players and within a matter of a few weeks all US players that had been affected by Black Friday had been repaid in full. Unfortunately, the same was not true for Full Tilt and Ultimate Bet/Absolute Poker, and to this day, all US players still have their bankrolls stuck on Ultimate Bet.

It took more than two years before Full Tilt had begun paying back its US players. Apparently the reason why there was such a long delay Full Tilt Poker’s US players to get paid was due to the complicated administrative procedures, as it was difficult to obtain the necessary information to figure out how much each US player was owed.

As of July 24, 2013, Absolute Poker has agreed to hand over all of their assets to the U.S. DOJ in a settlement agreement they recently reached. The assets will include deposits, computers, software and anything else which is of monetary value.

It is still known what will be done following the sale of these assets, which could be used to pay fines to the U.S. government or to make partial repayment to US players who still have their bankrolls stuck on these sites.

One thing is for sure, however, US players with funds stuck on the Cereus Poker Network (UB/AP) definitely can’t expect to be repaid in full, if they get any of their funds at all. This network was severely crippled following the Black Friday indictments, since the majority of their player pool was made up of US players. A month after Black Friday took place, the network’s player traffic was down more than 80% only for the US-facing online poker network to grow deep in debt.

Even with the occurrence of Black Friday, a very dark day that will always be remembered when looking back on the history of online poker, especially in the United States, it appears as though online poker will remain available to American players, as several states, including Nevada, Delaware, and New Jersey, already have regulated online gambling to their residents, which includes various online poker offerings. Brick-and-mortar casinos in the US will no doubt look to gain a foothold in the regulated US online poker market, as more and more U.S. states offer regulated online poker.